Local law enforcement professionals now scour social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook for info about crimes and criminals.
Whether this is a quantum leap in crime fighting is a subject of intense debate. The same dynamic is playing out at the federal level at the Department of Homeland Security. DHS managers say they will devote some of the $43 billion dollars in the agency’s budget to some “next level” counter-intelligence gathering.
The Homeland Security Department may soon start scouring the Internet to find blogs and message boards that terrorists use to plan attacks in the USA. At this point, you might be asking one of several questions, but let’s stick with the two big ones:
1. Is there really a Facebook for malcontents in outfits like Hezbollah and Al Qaeda?
2. And if there are such sites, why did we wait so long before checking them out?
The DHS effort addresses the contentions of some researchers who say that terrorists increasingly use the Internet to plan bombings, recruit members, and spread propaganda. “Blogging and message boards have played a substantial role in allowing communication among those who would do the United States harm,” the department said in a recent press release.
“There is a lot of IED information generated by terrorists everywhere — websites, forums, people telling you where to buy fertilizer and how to plant IEDs,” Hsinchun Chen, director of the University of Arizona’s Artificial Intelligence Lab told Thomas Frank with USA Today. Chen’s “Dark Web” research project has allegedly found 500,000,000 terrorist pages and postings, including tens of thousands that discuss IEDs.
But others aren’t sure how helpful blogs and message boards will be in uncovering attacks in the planning. “I just can’t envision a scenario where somebody posts to a message board, ‘I’m getting ready to launch an IED at this location,’” said terrorism analyst Matt Devost. “A lot of postings about attacks are fantasy, almost role-playing.”
That’s bad news for the folks charged with figuring who’s a threat and who’s just playing tough guy on the internet. With five hundred million “terrorist web pages” to sort through, those folks are going to need a lot of coffee. But others say even if it’s a long shot, looking for the jihadist who posts details on his blog before blowing himself up in a crowded market is worth the effort.
Internet searches are used routinely by government agencies, such as the Defense Department, in gathering intelligence, said Chip Ellis of the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. The searches use methods similar to a Google query and can be helpful in uncovering the latest IED technology, Ellis said.